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grendel has commented on (6) products.

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
The Girl Who Played with Fire

grendel, August 18, 2009

Having read and loved "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo", it's hard to express just how disappointing this sequel was.

The complexity, cleverness, and outright chills that marked the first book are replaced here by the kind of over-the-top excess that you find in trashy "B"-level action films. Characters are beaten within inches of their lives only to rise up moments later and smite their enemies. The intricate parlor-mystery whodunnit that was so compelling in "Dragon" is here replaced by a non-mystery that insults the reader's intelligence. Larsson spends 3/4 of the book trying to make us "wonder" if his heroine is actually a murderer. I am giving NOTHING away by saying "of course she is NOT."

Honestly, I could not wait for this book simply to end, and getting to the ending, with its almost laughable conclusion of cartoon violence provided no satisfaction whatsoever.

I'd give it one star only but for a clever prelude in the very first page of the book that ends up revealing an unexpected twist later on, but that hardly justifies wading through the rest of this sad follow-up to what was an extremely good debut.
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(10 of 15 readers found this comment helpful)



Everything Matters! by Ron Currie Jr.
Everything Matters!

grendel, August 6, 2009

Despite its grim subject matter--the unavoidable End of The World--"Everything Matters" is one of the most beautiful novels you will ever read, with a protagonist you will never forget.

Junior Thibodeau has been hearing voices literally all his life...they begin even before that, in utero--and while the voices are friendly, even supportive, they deliver the mind-shattering information that on a very specific date in 2010 the Earth will be struck by a giant meteor and all life on the planet will be wiped out. Junior isn't crazy, and neither are the voices in his head. They predict and tell him secrets about other people from his family and friends to complete strangers...all of which prove to be true, and so Junior is plagued by the certainty of this outcome, and with it the ultimate existential question: Does anything I do in this life matter at all?

The answer comes in how he handles his relationships with those closest to him: with his father, a strong but all-too-silent mountain of a man who only finds solace when he's working long hours at a bakery; his older brother Rodney, damaged by a cocaine addiction before reaching his 10th birthday, who nevertheless retains his innate athletic ability and becomes a man-child baseball star with the Chicago Cubs; and Amy, Junior's grade-school sweetheart and love of his life...who withdraws from Junior when he tries to explain to her his awful secret but later returns to his life in a bizarre sequence of events that are connected to the coming apocalypse.

There is black humor liberally laced throughout this book to alleviate the looming doomsday scenario. There's even a chance element introduced that Junior--while unable to save the planet--can possibly keep the human race from extinction. And there is a wild cast of supporting characters that includes a wheelchair-bound drug addict who tries to enlist Junior's help in blowing up a Social Security building in Chicago, and a stern, hard-as-nails government agent who knows Junior is right about the world ending and imprisons him to prevent the news from being leaked to the public.

Currie tells the tale using alternating first-person perspectives from the different characters, and each has a distinctive, compelling voice that moves the plot along briskly. Best of all are the scenes in which the reader gets to hear the voices that speak directly to Junior, and try to help steer him towards making the right decision, even as Junior asks aloud whether it matters. The voices (which speak in a collective "we") function like a caring but wry and sometimes sarcastic parent-figure, expressing admiration, disappointment, and ultimately understanding for the hero they know they have burdened with horrible knowledge.

The final pages of "Everything Matters" are among the most emotionally stunning and moving you will ever encounter. They speak to truths about our collective humanity that can, and should, offer saving graces for the mortality we all face, but too often fail to recognize.
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(10 of 17 readers found this comment helpful)



Everything Hurts
Everything Hurts

grendel, July 8, 2009

Phil Camp never meant his cathartic ode of anger to his ex-wife following their divorce to become a best-selling self-help book. "Excess Baggage" was, he thought, clearly a work of bogus advice. But easy answers for the emotionally vulnerable--even ones not meant to be taken seriously--are too attractive to pass up in modern America, and Phil not only makes a killing on his book, he parlays it into a full-time weekly advice column written under the pseudonym he used for "Excess Baggage": Marty Fleck.

All this happens in the first few pages of "Everything Hurts", and you wonder where author Bill Scheft--a veteran joke writer for David Letterman--can take the tale next. But Scheft has a fine comic turn of fate in store for Phil Camp--a sudden onslaught of inexplicable pain running from his hip down his leg that has him hobbling all over Manhattan, even though physically, nothing appears to be wrong.

Phil turns for help to a real doctor whose own self-help book "The Power of Ow!" insists Phil's kind of physical pain is all rooted in emotional trauma, and he may have a point. Phil has a tumultuous sibling rivalry going with his half brother--a pompous right-wing radio talk show host who regularly uses the airwaves to pummel Phil's alter ego Marty Fleck, and the seething resentment the two have for each other plays itself out in an increasingly outrageous manner...with the two trading snarky insults like seasoned Borscht Belt comedians.

Fans of Larry David-style angst and classic Jewish comedy rooted in familial neurosis will take instantly to this novel, which can be read in just a few sittings, but there's also a surprising amount of insight into the complexities of relationships between fathers, sons, brothers, and wives.

If there's a weak spot it's in the romantic sub-plot Scheft creates for Phil. The women in this book sometimes come off as slightly-altered versions of their male counterparts, and Phil's love story feels a bit rushed and tacked-on. But overall, "Everything Hurts" contains enough crisp writing and outright laughs to bring joy to a book that deals primarily in pain.
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(8 of 11 readers found this comment helpful)



Bridge of Sighs (Vintage Contemporaries) by Richard Russo
Bridge of Sighs (Vintage Contemporaries)

grendel, January 13, 2009

Richard Russo's latest novel seamlessly interweaves the personal histories of three very different families, all of them affected by the changing times and ultimate downfall of a fictional town in upstate New York.

This is a mammoth work of more than 600 pages that is so fluid, absorbing and flat-out readable that is as enjoyable to pass the time with as a smooth glass of wine is to drink. The characters feel like people you may have known in your own hometown, but Russo avoids any manner of cliche in relating their stories.

There is "Lucy" Lynch, the boy unlucky enough to have the nickname stick when in grade school a teacher announced his name "Lou" along with his middle initial "C". This seemingly innocuous moment would resonate and come to represent the whole of Lucy's life as a lovable but gullible and vulnerable boy affected by strange "spells" that leave him adrift from time and reality when under stress. He is the chronicler of the town of Thomaston's history, but the reader gradually comes to understand that his devotion to his home town, and reluctance to leave it even for a brief time, has distorted and veiled the more traumatic events that have occurred there, especially his own.

We also get to know his boy-hood friend Bobby, who grows up to be a world famous painter with demons from his own past that send him into night terrors when he sleeps, and a connection to Lucy's wife Sarah that threatens to upend all their worlds.

Sarah herself is one of the most original female characters to populate a novel in many years...at once devoted to her husband, but independent of spirit and the product of a tortured marriage, she provides a common grounding to everyone around her while forging her own path beyond the confines of the town.

"Bridge of Sighs" paints a most vivid picture of the American Dream, its shortcomings and promises, along with a portrait of the fragility of love and its consequences. It provides enough twists of fortune and destiny to keep the reader engaged in its grip until the final page.

It is also Russo's most heartbreaking yet compassionate novel to date. An absolute must-read for his fans and newcomers alike.


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(10 of 17 readers found this comment helpful)



A Man without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut
A Man without a Country

grendel, July 29, 2008

Having lost one America's great men of letters just last year (2007), this final volume of Vonnegut's thoughts and musings on early 21st century American life begs to be read by long-time fans and newcomers alike.

What people unfamiliar with Vonnegut's canon will discover is a subtle wit that barely disguises a more scathing critique for the follies of the powerful (the Bush administration is held in particular contempt), and a gentle soul pleading for a more compassionate future. That Vonnegut plainly states such a future is beyond our reach will sadden those who drew hope from his classic fiction, which he generously makes reference to throughout these sharp and unforgiving essays.

Vonnegut often said that his novels purposefully did not contain any villains--and indeed in books like "Slaughterhouse Five", "God Bless You Mr. Rosewater", and "Breakfast of Champions" the bad actions and decisions his characters make are traced directly to the weaknesses and hopeless circumstances of simply being human--but in "A Man Without A Country" Vonnegut clearly identifies and unleashes anger at real-life malcontents he says have destroyed his emotional connection to and affection for the country he fought for during World War Two. (Vonnegut re-visits his tale of surviving the infamous fire-bombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war, an event that eventually resulted in his most celebrated work, but also reveals it was an off-hand comment made by the wife of his fellow survivor and friend that allowed him to write about the incident in an honest manner.)

"A Man Without a Country" is a very honest book, but also a sad one. It reveals a brilliant and funny man left bitter and cynical near the end of his life, longing for the lost virtues of American heroes like Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln--the latter a man Vonnegut says was a better writer (citing the Gettysburg Address) than he or almost any other he can imagine, despite being a politician and not an author by trade.

This slim volume can be read in nearly one sitting, but you'll find yourself turning to it again and again for the force of its convictions, even as they point to a country that's lost its way and left so many on a morally wayward path.
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(12 of 21 readers found this comment helpful)



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